Setting up my own practice – hard work, but so rewarding
Katherine (centre) with the original members of her team
I never expected to set up my own practice. When I left university and went into mixed practice, my sole ambition was to become a good vet. The business and management aspects of the industry didn’t particularly interest me and focusing on the clinical stuff was keeping me busy enough as it was!
Six years after graduating though, having spent time in mixed, small and equine practice, I found myself frustrated. I had reached a point where I was relatively comfortable with my day-to-day job. I had completed a Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice, which meant I could spend more time focusing on areas that interested me clinically, but still I was not quite satisfied. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was lacking, or what I could do to bring back my passion for being a vet. I was very close to leaving the profession altogether.
Although there were many factors contributing to my restlessness at that time, I realised that one aspect of it was the lack of impact I could have on how the practice where I worked was run. As an assistant vet, I could have an effect on the experience and treatment of my own clients and patients, but beyond that I had very little impact on the rest of the practice. We held frequent practice meetings, but the decisions were made elsewhere. At the time I was an ambulatory equine vet, spending a lot of time in the car…I began using this time to dream of how I would create a practice of my own.
It wasn’t long before I had a vision in my head of The Harrogate Vet. I wanted to create a practice where customer service was key to everything. I felt that in a lot of veterinary practices the clients’ experience had somehow been forgotten. Why shouldn’t a visit to the vets be an enjoyable experience, or at least as pleasant as possible? I set out to create a practice that was a welcoming and comfortable place to be, where clients felt reassured and where they knew that their pet (and themselves) would be treated well.
The vision was for a practice that was a welcoming, comfortable place to be
In a physical sense this would be easy. It meant an absence of white walls, the smell of disinfectant, plastic flooring and hard chairs. Instead we would have a tiled floor, hot coffee brewing in reception, comfortable seating and attractive, inviting consultation and waiting rooms. But it also meant so much more than this – it meant a genuinely warm welcome for every client and pet; it meant no rushed appointments; it meant excellent communication with clients from the very first phone call, throughout their pets’ stay, and follow up when they were home; and it meant excellent clinical care too. I knew that I was going to need a fantastic team behind me to achieve this.
And so it begins…
In early 2018, after months of planning, researching and plucking up the courage, I decided to go for it. I handed in my notice and began to locum, going back into small animal practice. Locuming allowed me to continue earning but with the flexibility to be able to visit properties and spend increasing amounts of time on the new practice. It also allowed me to get to grips with small animal practice again!
Having never been involved in running a practice, never mind setting one up from scratch, I had a lot to learn. My first challenge was to find, lease and convert the premises. After some searching, I found the perfect spot, an old beauty salon close to the centre of Harrogate, which had been empty for some time. It took a lot of work to convert the building into a vet practice, and I wanted to have very high standards for the finished product. Of course I relied on builders and contractors for the majority of the work but I was also lucky to have friends and family to help with the majority of the finishing, decorating and installation of equipment to save money. The Christmas and New Year of 2018/19 will certainly be remembered for long days in paint and overalls in my family!
The rest of my time was spent researching every aspect of how to set up a practice and the learning curve was a steep one. The list seemed endless at times, from choosing IT systems to arranging clinical waste disposal, to negotiating with wholesalers, to writing staff contracts, to arranging insurance, to marketing and branding, to equipment purchasing, to radiation protection legislation.
A tight budget meant that I had to keep a very close eye on costs. Although this was a challenge, it meant that I was constantly negotiating and was occasionally surprised by where this got me. It also meant that I researched every purchase in huge detail to ensure we got the best quality for our money. Bit-by-bit I made my way through my to-do list. Before I knew it, the practice was almost ready.
Finding the team…
The emphasis I wanted on customer service meant that finding the right members for my team was vital. I was initially the only vet, but I needed to find two nurses and two front-of-house staff who could share my passion for customer service.
Of course the nurses needed to have previous experience in veterinary practice, but I was eager to have members of the team with experience in non-veterinary customer service roles too. I hoped this would bring a fresh, alternative point of view and would help us have a new, different approach to running a practice. I encourage my team to question why things are done a certain way and whether there might be a better way of doing them.
My previous experience as an employee, feeling unable to impact any decision making in practice, has made me keen to avoid this in The Harrogate Vet. I wanted the team to feel passionate about the practice but also to know that their ideas and opinions are wanted and valued and that they do have a say in how the practice is run and how it grows.
I was surprised to have a huge response to my job adverts and spent a long time interviewing potential candidates. I am thrilled with the team who joined me, each one of them embraced what I was aiming to achieve, and it became a shared vision.
The first year…
We opened in January 2019 and I can’t describe the feeling of our very first client walking through the door! Our first year was certainly hard work, but we have been amazed by the positive response we have had from the local community and how our new registrations have grown.
We have learnt that word of mouth is the best marketing you could hope for and the buzz of receiving good reviews from our clients has not yet faded. At the end of last year we were also very proud to win a British Veterinary Hospitals Association Design Award – the cherry on top of a fantastic first year.
Recognition for our achievements came in the form of a design award from the British Veterinary Hospitals Association
As we grow and become busier, I am aware that there is a risk of standards dropping, so for that reason I am always keen to recruit new team members before they are absolutely essential for our workload. This helps us to maintain our standards of service and also gives new team members time to get used to how we do things and to settle in. A second vet and a third nurse have now joined the team and our third vet will be starting in a couple of months.
Setting up my own practice has been the most rewarding part of my career so far. My advice to anybody considering it would be to make sure you have a clear and simple vision of what you are setting out to achieve, never forget it, refer back to it in every decision you make, and encourage your team to do the same!